Last week, feminist theologian and activist scholar Rosemary Radford Ruether died after battling long illness at the age of 85. A civil rights activist, champion of Palestinian rights, and board member for Catholics for Choice, Ruether had an eye toward global, progressive, and intersectional liberation in addition to being one of the most foundational figures for the field of feminist theology.
Throughout her life and scholarship, despite her struggles with dogma and the Catholic Church, Ruether continued to self-identify as Catholic.
“My Catholicism is the progressive, feminist liberation theology wing of Catholicism. That is the Catholicism that I belong to, that I am connected to around the globe,” Ruether told Catholic for Choice’s Conscience magazine, as reported by National Catholic Reporter.
By claiming her Catholic identity, Ruether did something important for LGBTQ and marginal Catholics: she gave us a distinctly Catholic tradition in which to situate ourselves and our theologies that challenge the center. While no hero is or should be perfect or possessive of all the answers, Ruether’s legacy for LGBTQ Catholics is one that insists upon staying and taking up rightful space, claiming truthful rereadings of tradition, and never wavering from a lens of intersectional solidarity.
Ruether is perhaps most known for her famous feminist question, “Can a male savior save women?” that guides her Christology chapter in Sexism and God-Talk. She responds, “Theologically speaking, then, we might say that the maleness of Jesus has no ultimate significance.” She says, “We need to think in terms of a dynamic, rather than a static, relationship between redeemer and redeemed,” concluding that “Christ, as redemptive person and Word of God, is not to be encapsulated ‘once-for-all’ in the historical Jesus. The Christian community continues Christ’s identity.” For a trinitarian people who believe in the equal importance of the Creator, Redeemer, and Holy Spirit, this interpretation of Christology makes a lot of sense. Christ’s importance lies more in his actions than in his stable identities, actions that are carried forward today by communities and movements for justice.
The influence of this Christology that lessens the importance of the gender of the historical Jesus and emphasizes Christ’s continued presence in community can be seen in the works of Ada María Isasi-Díaz and the postcolonial extension and queer interrogation of Ruether’s initial question provided by Kwok Pui-lan, who attributes inspiration to Ruether. Ruether’s feminist scholarship has been essential for opening these and other new routes for conversation on issues of race, gender, colonialism, and sexuality. And hers is both radically and authentically Catholic theology.
Many LGBTQ Catholics are plagued with the question, “Why stay?” It is, after all, tiring to work within a church committed to archaic understandings of gender and sexuality with little hope of major structural changes coming any time soon, if we are being honest.
Ruether passed away on the same day that I was conferred my Master of Divinity degree from my Catholic seminary, a conferral that raises mixed feelings for myself as someone denied the two vocational sacraments, marriage and ordination, by the Church that I have committed my career to. I cannot help but feel the continuation of Ruether’s work in the lives of all those on the margins of the Church who have chosen to stay in work that is not easy or straightforward, who occupy insider and outsider spaces at different moments.
As someone who continues to claim my Queer Catholic identity, I look to Ruether as an image of liberation as transformation. Ruether transforms what it means to be Catholic. Ruether’s Catholicism is something that I want to be a part of; it has elements of comfort in the tradition and it pushes the tradition forward, always allowing for new alleyways. Her legacy for LGBTQ Catholics and for us all is an invitation to not only take up space but also to rethink, flip, struggle, change your mind, be wrong, get dirty, retrieve, and repeat. That is Church that I can get behind.
Editor’s Note: New Ways Ministry expresses its deep sadness over the passing of Rosemary Radford Ruether, while at the same time we are extremely grateful for her contribution to the church, women, and other marginalized groups like LGBTQ people. Professor Ruether was an early supporter of New Ways Ministry, and she was a keynote speaker at our Second National Symposium in 1985. She also contributed a chapter entitled “Homophobia, Heterosexism, and Pastoral Practice,” for the book Homosexuality in the Priesthood and Religious Life (Crossroad, 1990), edited by Sister Jeannine Gramick, a co-founder of New Ways Ministry.
—Barbara Anne Kozee, New Ways Ministry, May 27, 2022